As 2020 comes to a close, it’s fair to say it’s not what any of us expected. Artist Jonny Cotsen offers up his reflections on a year to remember, exploring how his artistic practice has evolved and adapted to suit the needs of an altogether changed cultural landscape.
The summer of 2020 was hot and stuffy, and not just because of the weather. The coronavirus pandemic was disrupting life across the world, and my world was being reshaped as a result.
The previous summer, in what now seems like ancient history, I debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe with ‘Louder Is Not Always Clearer,’ a performance about my personal experience growing up deaf in a hearing world. The show got some great reviews and set me on course for a tour of the UK and Europe.
I was in the middle of that journey when COVID-19 spread. With the closure of theatre houses, performing arts dried up almost overnight. All my scheduled performances were cancelled – 27 in total – plus my inclusion training and workshops that I’m so passionate about to level the playing field across the arts sector.
Like so many others, I was left soul-searching for ways to cope with the consequences of this freak event entirely beyond our control. Being cooped up at home with the family, including my two beautiful young children, there was a lot of space for love but very little in which to focus.
I was also missing the arts community, where I was finally feeling that I was making a positive contribution to people’s lives over the last few years.
So, when the Culture Reset initiative came along, I fought my inner demons and went for it. It brought together around 200 talented and committed artists to reimagine the future of the arts post-coronavirus, whenever that would be. The virtual collaboration and networking with creative thinkers and doers from different walks of life all over Britain offered a timely respite from the new normal.
For me personally, this experience served as an accelerator, enabling me to focus but also to tackle some of the vulnerabilities I still feel as a deaf person wanting to make a difference.
I saw that I wasn’t alone in questioning myself. That the most inspirational people all have stories of vulnerability. That everyone has a voice inside their head.
That’s when I took my foot off the brakes.
With a renewed sense of self-belief, I’ve been busy adapting what I do and how I do it. No longer able to perform in the same way on stage, I’ve taken up the role of an integrated access dramaturg in several initiatives – and I’ve been loving it.
With Dirty Protest, an award-winning Welsh theatre company, I’ve carved out a role which is both consultative and creative at the same time, and I find it to be far more meaningful as a result. The position involves a great deal more than sign language interpretation and physical access – which in retrospect feel to me as though they’re ‘add-ons.’ Where I feel we’re leading the way at Dirty Protest – and where I feel a deep sense of responsibility – is in the integrative aspect of the role. That’s where I ensure that our shows are socially inclusive from the get-go and throughout the whole story, enriching the whole experience for disabled and disadvantaged communities.
The key to that success has been in building a genuine safe space in which all involved are able to connect, trust each other, and realise a collective vision for this fully inclusive and accessible journey.
An offshoot platform of Dirty Protest through which I’ve been able to build myself in this capacity has been the Right Now Festival, a five-day online event hosted by Le Pub in Newport, South Wales. Shortly before the launch, the organisers realised that the festival had not been thought through properly in terms of disabled access. I came in to help turn that around, working together with fellow artists and their creative teams to explore ways of being inclusive. One piece about queer fantasia and loneliness made strong use of soundscapes in a nightclub setting. I came up with a creative captioning feature that would be projected in sync on screen, as well as the use of colour to represent the tone and emotion of different sounds.
It may seem like a small intervention, but it’s implications can be huge for parts of the audience that don’t enjoy use of their senses in the same way as most people do.
Another project I’ve been developing for some time – but which has resurfaced during lockdown – is the Hearing Hearing Aids (HHA) initiative. It’s a communications device intended to simulate the deaf experience for hearing audiences, thereby facilitating empathy and strengthening bonds between deaf and hearing people. For anyone who’s ever imagined what it’s like to be deaf, my hope is that one day it will immerse you in that world – white noise, blare, artificially deep-sounding or shrill voices, and full-on amplified sound junkiness!
I’ve been busy on other fronts too: participating in and chairing panel discussions, collaborating with a fellow access consultant to explore new ways of incorporating diversity into the field, and performing in Next of Kin, a short film to raise awareness about issues faced by deaf people when caring for loved ones suffering from dementia.
And I even got my show back on the road, despite all the logistical difficulties thrown up by corona, with an on-stage performance in Katowice, Poland, in September, and another in Paris in December.
Like everyone else, I’ll be happy and relieved when coronavirus is behind us. But it’s amazing what we can achieve by taking some time out to reflect, refocus, reset – and support each other. I hope to carry that with me long after the pandemic is over.
Jonny Cotsen is a Cardiff-based artist and leader for Wales’ deaf community. He’s passionate about creating opportunities for deaf artists and socially disadvantaged and marginalised people everywhere. A qualified graphic designer and high-school teacher, Jonny shifted his professional career to performing and arts-inclusion consultancy and training in 2015.
Beside performing at the Edinburgh Fringe and other cultural events in the UK and Europe, he’s involved with multiple local and national initiatives designed to support inclusion and equality of opportunity in the arts sector, including Arts Council Wales, Disability Arts Cymru, Theatr Iolo, the Watershed Bristol, and – of course – Unlimited Connects.